Judge Demands Blood From Offenders Too Poor To Pay — Literally

Photo: Dave Martin/AP Photo.
"There's a blood drive outside," Alabama circuit court judge Marvin Wiggins told offenders who showed up in his courtroom in September, according to a complaint. They were ordered to be there because they hadn't paid their fines. He went on: "If you don't have any money, and you don't want to go to jail, as an option to pay it, you can give blood today."

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which filed a judicial ethics complaint against Judge Wiggins on Monday, his actions weren't so honorable. In fact, they violated the Constitution.

"It's an example of what we've been concerned about for a while — Alabama's two-tiered system of justice," said Sarah Zampierin, a staff attorney with SPLC, reached by phone. The two tiers Zampieren describes consist of "one set of penalties for those who can pay and another for those who can't afford to pay."

Wiggins summoned this unjust structure when he told defendants they'd be jailed for resisting payment. The county sheriffs "had enough handcuffs" for those who didn't want to put up money or let blood.

"It's not appropriate to send people to jail because they can't afford to pay," Zampieren explained. "It's not appropriate to impose official punishment just because somebody is poor."

The American Civil Liberties Union is similarly appalled. “Forcing poor people to give blood in order to avoid jail for unpaid fines and fees is coercion of the worst kind," Nusrat Coundry, a staff attorney with the ACLU said in an email. "The Constitution prohibits cities and towns from seeking to generate revenue with such a gross disregard for poor people’s bodies and lives.”

The American legal system stipulates that someone unable to pay a fine can submit paperwork stating claiming indigence — poverty or neediness. The response is not supposed to be jail time, and it is definitely not supposed to be donating blood, the SPLC's complaint alleges. As a jurist in the United States, Wiggins bears the ethical responsibility to understand and abide by this distinction, rather than take the Constitution into his own hands.

"I can't pretend to get inside his head," Zampierin said. "Judges need to know what constitutional limits are."

Paying fines is not optional, but contingencies do exist for people without resources. If you are able to pay a fine, and don't do it, you can be sent to jail. The problem is that most of the offenders in Wiggins' courtroom couldn't pay, and had already told the courts as much.

The fate of Wiggins' professional career is now in the hands of Alabama's inquiry commission. Their decision will reflect both the reprehensibility of Wiggins' actions and the country's readiness to take to task our broken justice system.

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